Starting Late: Elegy for Iris: Lesson 17 Part Two
The risks we take, why it's never too late, two writing experiments (Part Three of this lesson to follow soon--still time to read the book or watch the film)
Starting Late? What’s stopping you and what are the risks?
Why it’s never too late:
Did you know that in 2005, the architect Frank Gehry’s addition to the Corcoran Gallery was nixed? That was the bad news. Here’s the good news in an article I saved by Benjamin Forgey, past architecture and art critic for The Washington Post: “Rather late in life, the 76-year-old architect transformed himself into the avatar of an aggressively experimental, emotionally charged, formally inventive architecture that challenged conventional orthodoxies of both modernism and postmodernism. Challenged and then changed them.” Forgey described the design as “huge metal sails billowing elegantly outward, catching the light in wonderful ways, and looking right at home in supposedly conservative Washington.”
Before I turn to Elegy for Iris, let’s return to how I introduced “Starting Late” with this essay on Ageless Creativity and then again in Lesson 12 of Write it! How to get started:
I turn full circle to what may silence us.
Virginia Woolf called this silencer, “The Angel in the House” in her essay, “Professions for Women.” Women have no monopoly on this angel. Men too are plagued by the duties of adulthood, of parenting, of support for children, wives and aging parents. You must do what Woolf did to the Angel in the House in order to write.
“I now record the one act for which I take some credit to myself, though the credit rightly belongs to some excellent ancestors of mine who left me a certain sum of money—shall we say five hundred pounds a year?—so that it was not necessary for me to depend solely on charm for my living. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self–defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For, as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must—to put it bluntly—tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience; it was an experience that was bound to befall all women writers at that time. Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”
This passage by Woolf is oft quoted by feminists. But my experience teaching older students and observing my father, my husband and son tells me that men are plagued by a different sort of angel, perhaps, but they answer to that angel, nonetheless. And even if we’re of an age when we’re more free to do as we wish, habits die hard.
Tillie Olsen in Silences tells us:
“The years when I should have been writing, my hands and being were at other (inescapable) tasks. Now, lightened as they are, when I must do those tasks into which most of my life went, like the old mother, grandmother in my Tell Me a Riddle who could not make herself touch a baby, I pay a psychic cost: ‘the sweet beads, the long shudder begins.’ The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first; habits of years—response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters—stay with you, mark you, become you. The cost of ‘discontinuity’ (that pattern still imposed on women [and I would add, MEN]) is such a weight of things unsaid, an accumulation of material so great, that everything starts up something else in me ; what should take weeks, takes me sometimes months to write; what should take months, takes years.”
Anyone who chooses to be an artist and who does not have that metaphorical “500 pounds a year” also must find a way to kill the angel in the house. If there’s an angel in your house who keeps you from writing, it’s time you knew you’re not alone.
If you’ve started late or are considering starting late, you might be asking yourself if it’s talent that’s kept you from the work you want to do? Or if it’s too late?
Consider the cost you’ve paid for waiting. I’m here to assert that it’s not too late.
Yes, it’s a risky business.
Consider what Adam Bellow said after the death of his father. Adam Bellow is the second son of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, a prolific, brilliant writer who had five wives and four children. Adam Bellow writes: “I never spent Thanksgiving or Hanukkah with him. We had no family occasions. He justsatup there like Wotan on his mountain, in Vermont, or in his aerie overlooking Lake Michigan, and I made pilgrimages by bus or car or plane. I saw him on his occasional visits to New York or for a few weeks during summer vacation. Our relationship took place in a vacuum, on an orbital platform high above the earth. My father’s birthday ought to be one of those occasions that brings up the pain of his loss, but I rarely celebrated his birthdays with him, and he never celebrated mine with me. I didn't even know until after the fact that he had married his last three wives.”
And, if all this were not enough to daunt us, the question of betrayal may arise when we write.
Questions for Elegy for Iris
Does Bayley violate Murdoch’s privacy? If so, is that violation defensible?
The story is told in the first person, his point of view. How much of the book is about him?
How do these questions pertain to you and your thoughts about writing fiction, memoir or poetry? Are you concerned about betrayal, about being misunderstood? Are there areas off-limits for you? Are there areas that ought to be off-limits for all writers?
The novel discussion, writing experiments and more follow.
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